Tag Archives: relationships

Counseling a broken heart

By Bethany Bray August 24, 2022

Romantic breakups can be a painful process that often involves feelings of loss on many levels.

According to Jessica Rizk, a licensed professional counselor and supervisor who owns a private practice in Northern Virginia, initial feelings of loss after a breakup can occur in two phases, the first of which is the loss of routine. A person may acutely feel the loss of activities that brought them comfort and connection such as phone calls and texts from their partner, watching their favorite TV shows together or their usual morning coffee time.

As the breakup begins to sink in, the person may feel loss over what could have been, Rizk continues. This second phase may bring painful feelings about unmet expectations and the absence of a future with their partner — either one they imagined or one they discussed and planned as a couple.

These multifaceted feelings of loss can intertwine with anger, disappointment, vulnerability, regret, shame, betrayal, self-doubt, loneliness or even relief. In short, there can be a lot to unpack in counseling.

Rizk, a member of the American Counseling Association whose practice focuses on helping clients with relationship issues, recommends counselors start by offering empathic listening, which, she says, these clients need first and foremost. There is healing in being truly and completely heard, she notes.

“Clients may not feel they have the opportunity to get it all out to friends and family without judgment,” she explains. “Having an opportunity for the client to speak completely unfiltered is my main goal. Counseling is about talking about pain without judgment — even if they need to talk about something over and over.”

Although post-relationship heartbreak is not uncommon, Rizk aims to treat each client who seeks counseling after a breakup as if they are going through a new and unique experience. This includes prompting them to share how they met their ex, what drew them together and other details of the relationship, including its end. It’s important for clients to talk through the breakup — when they are ready — so they don’t get “stuck” in feeling angry and relying on unhealthy coping mechanisms, she says.

As clients share, Rizk says she tries to stay as neutral as possible and reassures the client that they will not feel the sadness, anger or any other feelings they are experiencing forever. She often needs to gently explain to clients that they may never know what caused a breakup.

“Depending on how vulnerable and open the client is, some of them are coming to counseling to figure out the why. Others are unhappy with being single or are looking to figure out why it [painful breakups] keeps happening and they jump from relationship to relationship,” Rizk says. “I try and listen to their stories and pull out threads to bring into sessions and gently process together. … Each client will cope in a different way, and my desire is to walk alongside the client as if I’ve never heard this pain before.”

Wondering why

Clients sometimes come to counseling after a relationship ends to seek closure, says Kelly Weber, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) who sees individual clients at her private practice in Phoenix, Arizona. They are often looking for help to move through a painful period that is full of difficult emotions and unresolved feelings about the relationship and its end. It can be a confusing and hurtful experience, she notes.

This can especially be the case, Weber says, if the breakup was unexpected, such as the discovery of infidelity, or the other person ended the relationship without much explanation. Inadequate closure — that feeling of having the rug pulled out from underneath you — can cause a person to replay scenarios over and over in their mind, wonder what happened, and question if it was their fault, she says.

For clients with a preexisting mental illness, a breakup can exacerbate their symptoms, especially rumination, self-doubt, intrusive thoughts and overthinking the “what-ifs,” Weber says. For some clients, this can lead to depressive episodes, trouble sleeping, weight loss or gain, isolation/withdrawal and distress to the point where it interferes with daily life. She has seen clients get to the point where their thoughts about the relationship and breakup are all-consuming and they are unable to get out of bed or meet their work responsibilities.

As with any client who is experiencing intense distress, Weber says that it’s important to ask clients who are experiencing a breakup about suicidal thoughts, including hopelessness or feeling like they can’t go on without their partner. In her experience, it’s not common for clients to answer in the affirmative, but “it’s important to ask the question,” she says.

Marquita Johnson, an LPC with a solo private practice in the greater Atlanta area, also notes that many of her clients are seeking closure when they come to counseling after a breakup. She reminds them that closure doesn’t have to be about getting answers from their ex; closure is for them, she says. 

To keep this focus, she often suggests that clients who are looking for answers about why a relationship ended write out their thoughts and feelings in a journal or compose a letter or email to their ex that does not have to be sent. She prompts them to reflect on what did and didn’t work for them in the relationship.

Johnson also provides psychoeducation on how clients may regress when they are triggered by contact with an ex or by something that reminds the client of the relationship and the time they spent together.

“They need to understand that it can be a roller coaster,” Johnson explains.

Johnson adds that clients may also need psychoeducation on how social media can trigger and worsen negative thoughts if a client continues to follow or look at an ex’s posts. She often spends time explaining that although it’s tempting to keep tabs on their ex’s life through social media, seeing their ex’s posts can prolong post-breakup pain and cause them to compare themselves or jump to conclusions on whether their former partner is happy or remorseful.

Working through loss

Kristyn Macala, a licensed professional clinical counselor at a trauma therapy practice that offers online counseling to clients in Ohio, stresses that these clients need a supportive and gentle approach. If a counselor tries to put a positive spin on the breakup, prompting the client to identify good things that came out of a relationship before they are ready, they are likely to stop coming, she says.

Instead, Macala tries to create an environment for these clients to “feel however they need to feel” after a breakup.

“For me, the most important thing is creating the space, the rapport and the connection [with a client], so they feel comfortable and know that we can take our time, and that’s OK,” says Macala, who specializes in sex and couples counseling.

Macala uses psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief model with clients experiencing heartbreak. When describing this concept to clients, she refers to these five stages as “tasks of mourning” because even though their ex is alive, they are still mourning the loss of a person they loved. Kübler-Ross’ model can help them accept the reality of the loss and the pain that comes with it as well as come to terms with a world where they are no longer a partner to that person, Macala explains.

“If the relationship was a ‘first’ in some way (e.g., first relationship, first relationship with a partner with a certain identity or characteristics, first sexual partner or committed partnership), the loss may be particularly painful because they likely had expectations and dreams that were unfulfilled and made personal sacrifices to invest in the relationship,” says Naomi J. Wheeler, an assistant professor and director of the Family and Relational Stress and Health (FReSH) Lab at Virginia Commonwealth University.

It can be tempting for a counselor to try to make a client feel better after a breakup, but the best support is the kind that honors all feelings as valid in the process of healing and taps into the client’s own internal wisdom, says Wheeler, an LPC in Virginia and a licensed mental health counselor in Florida. This includes the ups and downs of vacillating between hating a former partner and loving them, feeling lost and lonely, or feeling free and empowered.

Rizk often prompts clients to describe and explore their feelings of loss by asking them to tell her the story of their relationship, from beginning to end. This gives counselors an opportunity to listen for “sticking points” that may need further attention later in therapy, she explains. In fact, the language they use to describe their situation often provides a lot of context, Rizk says. For example, she listens for phrases such as:

  • “I don’t know what’s next.”
  • “I don’t know what to do with myself.”
  • “I feel like I’m never going to find anyone else.”
  • “I’m going to throw in the towel and stop dating.”
  • “I have never not been with someone.”
  • “I don’t know how I’m going to bounce back from this.”
  • “I don’t know how I’m going to tell my family.”
  • “Without my partner, I’m not strong enough.”

Clients who use this type of language often need to focus on their identity and self-worth in addition to grief work in counseling, Rizk notes. It may also indicate that they struggle with a fear of loneliness or have previously relied on a partner to find happiness or fulfillment. These feelings may be further complicated if a client comes from a culture or family system that places value and importance on marriage or couplehood over singleness, she adds.

“There can be a sense of confusion on ‘what now’ or ‘what’s next.’ They invested so much in the relationship that they forgot to invest in themselves,” Rizk says. “There is a lot of grieving, but how they grieve can be very telling of how they view love, [including a reliance on] external love instead of self-love.”

Quelling negative thoughts

It’s easy for clients to fall into negative thought pattens and ruminate on the what-ifs after a painful breakup. So helping clients become aware of this inner “script” is a vital first step in counseling, Macala says, as well as equipping them with tools to stop and reroute intrusive thoughts. When left unchecked, unhealthy thoughts can intensify other mental health challenges such as depression and anxiety.

“When those [negative] thoughts are swirling in our brain we can really get down on ourselves,” agrees Kasie Morgan, a licensed clinical mental health counselor and supervisor at a practice in Mount Holly, North Carolina. She’s noticed that clients often respond by questioning themselves and asking, “What did I do? What doesn’t this person like about me? Why does this always happen to me?” The first thing she helps clients do is redirect the focus by telling them, “This is not about what is wrong with you; it’s about what happened to you.’”

Morgan also finds that helping clients to forgive themselves can be an essential part of healing. A person’s self-talk often defaults to “should” statements, such as “I should have known the other person was going to hurt me or treat me poorly.” These clients often need to hear (sometimes repeatedly) from a counselor, she says, that nothing they can do will control or change the behavior of another person — all they can do is focus on their own actions and thoughts. 

“That is a hard concept to work through,” Morgan admits. “A lot of times when we talk about a breakup or dismantling a relationship, there’s a lot of talk about forgiving the other person. But we forget to talk about forgiving ourselves for our shortcomings and our patterns. Part of the process is letting go of the things within yourself that have driven you to a place of not liking yourself. Being kind to yourself is vital.”

Morgan uses acceptance and commitment therapy techniques with her clients to help them build resiliency and learn to separate fact from fiction in their thought patterns and emotions. She asks clients to identify the residual feelings they have from a past relationship (e.g., despair, sadness, relief). Then she helps clients put those feelings in context by pointing out a positive fact or aspect that came out of the relationship. For example, she may note that the client devoted a lot of time, energy and emotion to this person and relationship and prompt them to explore it further by asking themselves, “What are the facts about me that have come out of this relationship?” 

Rizk also says that cognitive reframing techniques are her go-to for clients who are spiraling into negative thought patterns after a breakup, including feeling that they have somehow failed or are “not enough.” She supplements this work by prompting clients to make a list of things that they are good at or have been successful at outside of their love life. Clients can also ask supportive friends and family to help them identify some positive qualities and accomplishments that they can add to the list, she says.

When Rizk discusses the client’s list with them in session, she emphasizes that they are worthy of love and have a lot of be proud of. Positive aspects of a client’s life, such as work accomplishments or valued friendships, can often be forgotten or put aside when a client is in a romantic relationship, especially one that is falling apart, she notes.

The language that clients use when describing their negative thought patterns can also uncover core beliefs that need to be explored and challenged in counseling, Macala says. This includes catastrophizing or making generalizations such as “bad things always happen to me,” she adds.

Macala says she gently broaches these conversations about core beliefs, and she doesn’t delve deeper into the issue with the client until after they have moved past their initial emotional response to the breakup, are stabilized and indicate they are ready to discuss these beliefs further. She begins by talking about what core beliefs are, giving examples such as “I am unworthy” or “I am helpless,” and explaining that some of them can come from negative things we’ve heard in our formative years. She then asks clients, “Does any of this sound familiar? Does it resonate with you?” And she says they often respond “yes.” 

“I don’t challenge them right away,” says Macala, who estimates that one-third of her caseload is struggling with some kind of relationship loss or grief. “This person has believed that two plus two equals five their whole life and I’m telling them that two plus two equals four, and it’s upsetting. … Sometimes it takes a lot of work to exchange them [core beliefs] for something more helpful.”

Macala says that the cognitive behavior therapy technique of reframing, which is strengths-based, can be particularly helpful for clients who disclose catastrophizing thought patterns and beliefs such as “I can’t do anything right.” 

Exploration of core beliefs and reframing helped a male client that Macala once worked with who came to counseling after the end of a long-term relationship. His partner had cheated on him, and the client was navigating a lot of pain, denial and a need to mourn the loss of the relationship and the long-term plans he had imagined with his partner.

His presenting concern was depression, she recalls, but as they began to work together it became apparent that the breakup was exacerbating not only his depression but also his substance use.

Initially, Macala worked on thought stopping techniques with this client to quiet his rumination and equipped him with healthy coping mechanisms, such as positive affirmations and gratitude journaling, to turn to instead of substance use. Once he was stabilized, they began to focus on his values, and it became clear that undergoing childhood abuse and abandonment by his mother had caused him to believe that he was unlovable, Macala says.

She challenged this belief by asking the client to write out a list of his values. For each value that had a negative connotation, she asked him to think of a positive one to match it. From there, she suggested the client put the positive values on a vision board to look at and remember each day.

“Negative beliefs focus on what isn’t there,” Macala says, “and reframing flips it to focus on what is there.” 

Rediscovering self

We often invest a lot of our time and resources in our relationships, and as a result, we can wrap much of our identity and sense of self into a significant relationship or partner,” says Wheeler, an ACA member who specializes in family and relational stress. “So, when the relationship ends, a person may grieve the loss of the partner, the loss of the life built together, as well as the future they had imagined, and begin a process of rediscovering themselves outside of the partnership.”

Wheeler and the other counselors interviewed for this article emphasized that clients can benefit from counseling work that guides them to explore and reconnect to their identity after a painful breakup. A first step can be to ask the client to identify hobbies, interests and social supports — including those which they had abandoned during their relationship — that they want to connect or reconnect with.

For Weber, this focus on reconnection to self often comes after she’s done grief work with a client and they have moved forward from an initial state of vulnerability and sadness where, in some cases, they’re crying all the time. She often explains this concept by describing it as “working on version 2.0 of themselves.”

Weber finds that dialectical behavioral therapy techniques can be helpful to give clients a new perspective after a breakup and boost confidence. In particular, she uses role-play to build communication skills and to help clients better express their needs.

Morgan also recommends counselors help clients who are going through a breakup identify and explore their core values and beliefs, including values that come from their family of origin. There are numerous values worksheets available at therapistaid.com that are helpful in this realm, she notes.

She advises counselors to help clients identify what values they want to closely examine and how those values affect their ability to be a romantic partner. “It’s important to identify not only [clients’] current values but also what they want them to be,” she says. “For example, I might want to have creativity in my life but right now I’m working at a job that isn’t creative.” 

“A lot of values are generational, so it can be helpful to see how they impact your life and play out in your own values,” she adds.

Johnson specializes in counseling the millennial population, especially with dating and relationships, and often spends a lot of time helping clients to identify and strengthen their identity and values after a breakup. She created two sets of cards related to relationships that she often uses in session with clients recovering from a breakup. The first set of cards prompts conversation on what a client wants for themselves in a relationship, with questions such as:

  • What did your mother or father teach you about relationships?
  • If your relationship was a traffic light, would the signal be green, yellow or red, and why?
  • How do you know you feel safe in a relationship?
  • If you had the relationship of your reality, what would that look like? (Johnson says she purposely uses the word “reality” here instead of “dreams” to keep clients from imagining or dwelling on a false reality.)

The second deck of cards contains a series of relationship affirmations for counselor and client to repeat together and talk through. Some of the affirmations include: 

  • The success of a relationship is a shared responsibility, based on trust and vulnerability.
  • Healthy control is having both self-control and the remote control. (This affirmation interjects a little humor and usually sparks a laugh before diving into the heavy topic of self-control, Johnson notes.)
  • When I’m in conflict with my partner, I am actually looking to connect with them.

In addition to the card prompts, Johnson also has clients identify and write lists of negotiable and non-negotiable aspects that they value in relationships and areas they are working on (e.g., self-confidence) to track and discuss in counseling. 

Having clients focus on themselves during this phase of therapy, Johnson says, often reveals the need to work on skills such as communication and assertiveness, as well as the need for psychoeducation on the different types of attachment styles and how that can influence a person’s romantic relationships.

Johnson notes that these conversations can also prompt wider discussions about what the client views as a healthy relationship, when and how they feel safe to become vulnerable with a partner, and what they’ve learned and internalized from their own relationships as well as others’. And it shifts their focus to realize that they have the power to set boundaries for the choices they make with romantic partners in the future, she adds.

Making meaning

With their relationship in the rearview mirror, an important part of the healing process is for clients to reflect and create meaning from the experience. However, “there’s no easy way to do that,” Macala admits. “We have to approach it from the perspective of putting ourselves in the driver’s seat. We get to decide what we are going to take from it [the relationship].”

Although this is an essential part of counseling after a breakup, it should come after a client has processed the loss and is ready to reflect on the entire relationship, including its painful end, Macala says.

The ultimate goal should be to guide the client as they identify what was good and healthy in the relationship. “Then, we discard whatever was unhealthy and what we don’t need anymore,” Macala says. Take, for example, a client who experiences a bad breakup with someone they have a child with; rather than thinking about the negative parts of the breakup, the client could choose to focus on the fact that this relationship also gave them something positive: their child.

One approach that Macala uses to prompt these discussions is to have the client make a list of things that were red and green flags in the relationship. Clients are often familiar with the idea of red flags in a relationship, such as jealousy or controlling behavior. Conversely, green flags can include things such as finding a partner who enforces healthy boundaries in their life or has good social supports. Macala suggests clients make meaning from their past relationship by expanding their thinking to include both the red flags they want to avoid repeating in their next relationship and the green flags they’d like to seek out.

Weber agrees that a counselor can help clients make meaning from the good and the not-so-good aspects of an ended relationship. She finds it helpful to spur these conversations by having the client draw a line down the middle of a blank piece of paper. On one side, they list all the things they will miss about the relationship, and on the other side, they include all the things they won’t miss.

“Through the grieving process, we are able to recognize both sides of that piece of paper,” Weber says. “We do not want to romanticize it [the relationship] or put it on a pedestal but have a realistic view of what happened.”

Nattanitphoto/Shutterstock.com

 

The need for self-love

Clients who are healing from a painful breakup often ask their counselor when they should start dating again. There is no “right” answer to this question, and a professional counselor shouldn’t advise a client on what they should or shouldn’t do, but it’s an important topic to talk about, notes Kelly Weber, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) with a private practice in Phoenix, Arizona. Weber uses the question as an opportunity to explore why — or why not — a client feels they are ready to date again. 

Jessica Rizk, an LPC who owns a private practice in Northern Virginia, says that clients’ questions about when to start dating again often have some underlying reasons. If it’s because they are uncomfortable with being single, they may benefit from unpacking those feelings in therapy.

Rizk has worked with clients who dove back into dating and relationships soon after breakups because they were unable to tolerate feelings of loneliness and vulnerability and struggled with self-love. These feelings can stem from abandonment or negative experiences in their past, including childhood, she explains.

“They are attracted to feeling loved by someone,” Rizk says. “The reality is that they’re trying to fill a bucket with a hole in it. It’s not their partner’s responsibility to fix their bucket.”

Rizk helps clients work through these issues, explaining that a relationship is doomed if one of the partners is seeking connection to meet a need, such as self-love, that only they can meet themselves.

Clients may avoid talking about a breakup or blame others for relationship problems because they fear loneliness or feel they are unworthy of love — all of which can be processed in counseling, adds Marquita Johnson, an LPC with a counseling practice in the greater Atlanta area.

“Their identity is often enmeshed with being a part of a couple,” Johnson says. “I tell clients, ‘A single dollar bill still has value even though it’s alone. It is not valueless if it’s not with other bills.’”

She sometimes assigns these clients “homework” by asking them to do an activity by themselves (e.g., eat in a restaurant or attend a social gathering alone) and then write in a journal to process the experience. She prompts them to think about how they felt during the activity and, in turn, what value can be found in being single and doing things on their own.

Kasie Morgan, a licensed clinical mental health counselor and supervisor at a practice in Mount Holly, North Carolina, agrees that a counselor’s role can include helping a client explore their thoughts and feelings related to relationships after a breakup as well as whether they are ready to begin dating again and take on the “heavy work” of being in a partnership.

Entering another relationship “is a heavy thing and they need to work through their connection to self before” they’re ready to date again, Morgan says. “Until they are happy with where they are in life, it’s going to be increasingly difficult to find a relationship and be fully committed to that person.”

 

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Bethany Bray is a senior writer and social media coordinator for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org.

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Voice of Experience: The search for intimacy

By Gregory K. Moffatt August 17, 2022

Humans are social creatures, no doubt. But we run the spectrum from the intensely introverted (like I am) all the way to the expressly extroverted (like the rest of my family). Isolation is often a necessity for introverts who need to recover from the energy-draining, crowded workdays.

But for extroverts, being immersed in their work and sitting at a desk all day, even if they are surrounded by people, requires them to seek out social time. All three of my adult children are like that. After a long day at work, they still want to go out to museums, clubs and parties. It exhausts me to think about it.

But what we all have in common isn’t just our social nature, varied as it is. Intimacy — a component of our social nature — is what we really seek.

Erik Erikson brought the term “intimacy” into our clinical vocabulary in the first half of the 20th century with his eight stages of psychosocial development. The sixth stage of his theory teaches us that we reach a critical juncture in our 20s: We either learn to be intimate or we find ourselves feeling isolated until we do. Some people, according to Erikson, remain stuck in this stage, doomed to live out their days feeling empty.

A shallow reading of his theory might lead one to suppose he only meant romantic relationships. I am sure that was a part of what he had in mind, but intimacy is so much more than that. Intimate relationships encompass both platonic and romantic relationships, and they are ones where individuals are free to bare their souls and to know that their secrets will be safe and understood.

The most satisfying marriages are intimate marriages, but intimacy isn’t just physical. In fact, any sex therapist could tell you that people often substitute sex for intimacy. But sex can be safer than intimacy because it doesn’t allow one to be as easily hurt or betrayed.

Robert Sternberg, an American psychologist, helps us understand the difference between intimacy and sex even better in his triangular theory of love. This theory teaches us that the most loving relationships are those that balance intimacy, passion and commitment. Intimacy is the sharing of self, whereas passion is the physical attraction of a relationship.

A relationship can have a passionate physical life yet be devoid of intimacy. Clients often say, “My spouse never talks to me.” When I want to test for intimacy, one of my quick go-to questions is, “What is your spouse most afraid of?” If the client can answer that question, they have at least some level of intimacy.

Think about the many ways we demonstrate our need for intimacy. We take pictures, not just to remember the moment but to share them with others. We are saying, “Look at what is important to me. Do you understand me?”

We touch. Holding hands, a pat on the arm or a high five are all ways of being intimate. We are allowing others into our space or moving into other peoples’ space for the sole purpose of letting them know, “I see and understand you.”

We tell stories and jokes. With this exchange, we are trying to illicit a response from the other person. We want them to notice what we enjoy or find funny.

If you don’t believe me, think about the last socially awkward moment you had where someone didn’t care about a picture you shared, didn’t appreciate your touch or didn’t laugh at your joke. I bet it left you feeling empty — just as Erikson said it would.

Navigating intimacy is a lifelong task. Our biggest fear is being rejected — having someone betray our risk of intimacy. Dysfunction occurs when we don’t know how to be appropriately intimate or we stop trying.

So many clients have passed through my door struggling to repair damaged relationships or contemplating divorce. “I’ll never marry again,” they often say, and I know in that moment, they believe it.

But I also know that feeling may pass because being completely isolated will not fulfill their need for intimacy. People don’t have to remarry or even date for that matter. But when one is hurt so deeply, it is easy to generalize pain and avoid intimacy with anyone. And that, my friends, is the antithesis of being human.

As counselors we often need to help our clients discover intimacy in healthy ways. Pornography addiction, affairs, substance use and careers can be substitutes for intimacy. People with calloused hearts who are afraid of being hurt may pretend they don’t need anyone else, but we know better. That kind of self-protection is understandable, but it robs one of their humanness.

Everton Vila/Unsplash.com

 

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Gregory K. Moffatt is a veteran counselor of more than 30 years and the dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Point University. His monthly Voice of Experience column for CT Online seeks to share theory, ethics and practice lessons learned from his diverse career, as well as inspiration for today’s counseling professionals, whether they are just starting out or have been practicing for many years. His experience includes three decades of work with children, trauma and abuse, as well as a variety of other experiences, including work with schools, businesses and law enforcement. Contact him at Greg.Moffatt@point.edu.

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Journeying through betrayal trauma

By Allan J. Katz and Michele Saffier June 6, 2022

Tero Vesalainen/Shutterstock.com

“Cathy’s” life has just been turned upside down. She picked up her husband’s cellphone only to discover a loving message from his affair partner. Cathy’s brain is spinning, and her emotions are all over the map. She feels embarrassed and alone, disconnected and detached from reality. She questions whether her entire relationship has been an enormous lie. She questions her attractiveness, her sexuality and her ability to ever trust anyone again. She feels as if she were just pushed out of an airplane and fell with no parachute.

As a certified sex addiction therapist and a member of the American Counseling Association, I (Allan) have seen firsthand that betrayal trauma is real. The shock is debilitating for betrayed partners and can last for years. Their lives are broken to pieces, and they are overwhelmed with shame, often thinking, “How could I be so stupid not to realize what was happening right under my nose? I’m such a fool for trusting him/her.” They feel they are going crazy. 

But these feelings are all normal because in all likelihood, this is the most shocking and confounding crisis they have ever experienced. After all, they thought they knew their partner and never thought their partner would cheat. The reality of the situation rocks the foundational values they have believed in and based their lives on. What is perhaps most disturbing is that they were going about their daily routine in the safety of their own home, and, in an instant, a discovery upends their world. It happens through answering a knock at the door, reading a random text, picking up a ringing telephone or — the most common form of discovery — turning on the computer to check email. 

The shock for the betrayed partner is so profound in the first moment, the first hour and the first day that it is hard to comprehend. It feels surreal, as if it can’t be happening. It feels as if you are suddenly outside of yourself watching a movie, seeing yourself react and not feeling connected to your own body. 

International trauma expert Peter Levine explains that when we are confronted by a situation that our brain experiences as frightening, we automatically go into a freeze response. We are thrust into a primal survival strategy commonly referred to as being “like a deer in headlights.” It is the state of being “beside yourself.” Betrayed partners describe it as being frozen, numb or in an altered state. Being lied to in such a profound manner by your partner, lover, sweetheart and beloved feels wholly abnormal. For many betrayed partners, there is no precedent for the experience. 

Answering the ‘why’ question

The “why” question is what betrayed partners find themselves coming back to over and over again. Why did you engage in this behavior? Why did you lie … repeatedly? 

Betrayed partners often feel that they can’t move on and find closure without knowing the answer to the “why” question. The painful truth is that there is no good reason and, for the betrayed partner, no right answer. The “explanation” can be challenging for betrayed partners to hear and can take time to process fully. Although they may not understand the “why” behind the behavior, betrayed partners can gain answers that help provide clarity and make healing possible for them and the relationship.

“Daphne,” a heartbroken partner, described her “why” questions as follows: “What were you thinking? Was I the only one longing to share my life with you? What makes you think you can take a stripper and her child to Disneyland, tell me and then expect me to stand for it? How could you use my faith and religion against me by saying, ‘Aren’t you supposed to forgive? Judge not lest you be judged,’ and, most offensive, ‘I think you were put on this earth to save me.’ Why did you even marry me? Why did you stay married to me? What does love mean to you? You obviously have no heart. How could you look me in the eyes and see how much pain I was in and how unloved I felt and continue giving our money to your girlfriend? Why did you promise me that you would never cheat on me as my father did to my mother? How can you say, ‘It’s not about you’? You admitted to me that you never considered my feelings. Why? You acknowledged that you lied to your family about me, portraying me as a horrible spouse so that you would feel justified to continue your affair. Why did you need to go that far?”

These are the types of questions that every betrayed partner asks. Betrayed partners believe that they cannot heal unless they know why their beloved cheated on them. But in the case of chronic betrayers, their reasons lie deep below the surface, much like the iceberg that sank the Titanic. The question becomes, “Why would someone who appears to be functioning well act against their morals and values?” Are these folks actually addicted to sex, or is sex addiction an excuse for bad behavior? 

In her “What Your Therapist Really Thinks” column for New York magazine on May 11, 2017, Lori Gottlieb responded to a letter from a reader wondering whether their husband might be having an affair. Gottlieb mentioned that whenever someone comes into her office to discuss infidelity, she wonders what other infidelities might be going on — not necessarily other affairs but the more subtle ways that partners can stray that also threaten a marriage.

In his book Contrary to Love, Patrick Carnes said his research indicated that 97% of individuals who were addicted to sex had been emotionally abused as children. These individuals were raised in unhealthy or dysfunctional homes with parents who did not give them the care essential to their healthy growth and development. Poverty, mental illness, alcoholism, drug addiction, violence and crime are among the many reasons that individuals turn to sexually compulsive behavior as adults. As a result, people who are sexually addicted have negative core beliefs about themselves. They feel alone and afraid and believe they are unworthy of love; they believe that no one can truly love them because they are unlovable. Therefore, they learn from a very young age that intimacy is dangerous in real life and that they can trust themselves only to meet their needs. 

In an article titled “Can serial cheaters change?” at PsychCentral.com, psychologist and certified sex addiction therapist Linda Hatch discussed two reasons that people cheat, both due to deep insecurities. Some who cheat feel intimidated by their spouse in the same way that they felt threatened in their childhood homes. A real-life connection is terrifying to someone who was not shown love as a child. In response, they seek affair partners, watch pornography or pay for sex to avoid these real-life connections. 

Carnes’ second book, Don’t Call It Love, is aptly titled. Acting out is not about love or sex; instead, acting out numbs the overwhelming agony of being loved by a real-life partner.  

The root of addiction and the brain science

At the root of addiction is trauma. Trauma is the problem, and for some, sexual acting out is the solution — until the solution fails. And when it fails, it results in more trauma. 

Deep wounds suffered when young cause a level of pain that overwhelms the child. Because human beings are built to stay alive, the brain banishes the ordeal’s worst feelings and memory. It locks them away to keep the child alive. 

Understanding the brain science of trauma and addiction enables the betrayed partner to see the big picture. The acting out had very little to do with the relationship or the partner.

Many mental health professionals do not believe that sex addiction is a legitimate disorder. Therapists often think that the betrayed partner is the problem because they’re “not enough” — not attentive enough, not available enough, not sexual enough, not thin enough, not voluptuous enough. Sex therapists (not to be confused with sex addiction therapists) believe that sexual expression is healthy — regardless of the behavior. Understanding the science that drives the addictive process is vital for the betrayed partner’s wellness, lest they take responsibility for their betrayer’s acting out. Knowing the brain science that causes a process addiction is essential to understanding how something that isn’t a chemical substance can be addictive. 

In his book In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters With Addiction, Dr. Gabor Maté described childhood adversity and addiction, noting that early experiences play a crucial role in shaping perceptions of the world and others. A 1998 article by Vincent J. Felitti and colleagues in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine explained that “adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs (e.g., a child being abused, violence in the family, a jailed parent, extreme stress of poverty, a rancorous divorce, an addicted parent, etc.), have a significant impact on how people live their lives and their risk of addiction and mental and physical illnesses.” 

There are two types of addictions: substance and process (or behavioral) addictions. Process addictions refer to a maladaptive relationship with an activity, sensation or behavior that the person continues despite the negative impact on the person’s ability to maintain mental health and function at work, at home and in the community. Surprisingly, an otherwise pleasurable experience can become compulsive. When used to escape stress, it becomes a way of coping that never fails. Typical behaviors include gambling, spending, pornography, masturbation, sex, gaming, binge-watching television, and other high-risk experiences. 

Process addictions increase dopamine. Dopamine is a naturally occurring and powerful pleasure-seeking chemical in the brain. When activities are used habitually to escape pain, more dopamine is released in the brain. The brain rapidly adjusts to a higher level of dopamine. The “user” quickly finds themselves on a hamster wheel, seeking more exciting, more dangerous, more erotic or more taboo material to maintain the dopamine rush. The brain has adapted to the “new normal.” The brain depends on a higher level of dopamine to regulate the central nervous system. It quickly becomes the only way to reduce stressors; the person struggling with addiction ends up doing and saying things they will soon regret but cannot seem to stop on their own. Carnes aptly refers to this as the hijacked brain.

Once the brain is hijacked, the downward spiral of craving more and more dopamine affects higher-level thinking and reasoning. 

Let the healing begin

Healing for the betrayed partner begins with a formal disclosure process, ideally guided by certified sex addiction therapists. Betrayed partners often have difficulty making sense of their reality on their own. There are so many unanswered questions, and each question has 10 questions behind it. 

Betrayers are reluctant to answer questions because they fear the answers will cause the betrayed partner more harm and therefore will cause them harm. However, withholding information is what causes harm. Betrayed partners report difficulty getting the whole truth on their own. Even if their betrayer does break down and answer questions, they will not get the entire story because the betrayer is in denial — they are in denial that they are in denial! 

A formal disclosure process led by a certified sex addiction therapist is the best way to get the information necessary so that the betrayed partner can make the most important decision of their life: Will they stay in the relationship or leave? 

Partners who continue to be consumed with seeking information are tortured — not by the behavior but by their unrelenting quest to uncover all of the lies. Initially, information-seeking helps decrease panic and the horrible loss of power experienced after discovery of the betrayal. However, searching for information or signs of acting out quickly becomes all-consuming. Without intervention, intense emotions lead to faulty thinking, which becomes a force from within that fuels anger, rage and revenge. The powerful energy inside can be like a runaway train gaining speed until it crashes.  

Betrayed partners learn that betrayers live in a state of secret destructive entitlement. Education about the conditions that led to the betrayer’s choices and deception is essential for the betrayed partner’s healing. Still, it is in no way a justification or vindication of the betrayer’s egregious behavior.

It is complicated to understand that there are two truths for people who struggle with sex addiction: they love their partner (in the way they know love) and act out sexually with themselves or others. Betrayed partners come to understand that addiction is a division of the self. 

Reflection and reconstruction 

Betrayal trauma causes a fracture in the foundation of a relationship and the foundation of the self. The secrets, lies, gaslighting and deception throughout the relationship are a silent cancer that consumes the infrastructure. The most devastating aspect of discovery is that the entire system that holds the relationship together begins to collapse into itself.  

For the betrayed partner, healing involves self-reflection. Although they didn’t create the problem, their mental health requires them to face aspects of themselves that have been affected by infidelity and deception. During therapy, both partners face reality and let go of the illusion that theirs was a healthy marriage/relationship. They grieve what was lost and learn to let go of anger. Letting go creates space to build inner strength and accept love back into their hearts.  

Forgiveness

Healing of the mind, heart and soul can happen regardless of the magnitude of the deception. But in the absence of a healing/recovery process, the betrayed partner’s anger intensifies and can cause them to be further traumatized by sifting through emails, texts and conversations, asking for every minute detail of the affair. As anger ferments, it can lead to rage. Rage can wreak havoc on the body, leading to health problems. 

The solution is forgiveness. Many partners worry that they will be expected to forgive their betrayer. But forgiveness is not about forgetting nor is it about condoning bad behavior. Instead, forgiveness is a process of opting out of anger and the need for revenge — forgiving the human qualities that lead people to act in terrible ways. To be clear, forgiveness frees one’s heart from the prison of anger. Forgiveness is a decision that is made daily.

Release and restoration

After discovering a beloved’s infidelity and deception, and after accepting their own call to action, the betrayed partner turns inward and begins their own hero’s journey. This journey requires courage, loyalty and temperance. Each phase of the journey involves purifying, grinding down, shedding and brushing away unhealthy attitudes, beliefs and behaviors. The hero’s journey brings the betrayed to a state of purity and clarity. 

Eckhart Tolle described the “dark night of the soul” as a collapse of the perceived meaning that the individual gave to their life. The discovery of infidelity, deception and trickery causes a shattering of all that defined the betrayed partner’s life. Their accomplishments, activities and everything they considered important feels like they have been invalidated. 

At the bottom of the abyss, however, is salvation. The blackest moment is the moment where transformation begins. It is always darkest before the dawn. The only way to heal is to head straight into the fire toward restoration. 

The restoration phase is all about finding meaning in life again. This doesn’t mean the betrayed partner will no longer have any feelings of sadness or longing. But they will also have moments of happiness again. 

There are two tasks in this last phase of the hero’s journey: reclaiming their life with a new story that includes the bruises and scars bound together with integrity and pride, and restoring one’s self to wholeness. Before putting it all back together, partners must find their meaning in their own personal hero’s journey. To accomplish this, partners must discover how to make meaning out of suffering. 

In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor, asserted that even in the worst suffering, having a sense of purpose provides strength. He contended there is no hope to survive if suffering is perceived as useless. Finding purpose transforms suffering into a challenge. 

Frankl believed that in the worst of circumstances, there are two choices: 1) to assume that we cannot change what happens to us, leaving our only option to be a prisoner of our circumstance or 2) to accept that we cannot change what happened to us but that we can change our attitude toward it. A more potent, resilient, and positive attitude allows us to realize our life’s meaning. Through their hero’s journey, betrayed partners learn that their brokenness can lead to wisdom and deeper meaning in their lives.

 

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Allan J. Katz is a licensed professional counselor and certified sex addiction therapist. He is products co-chair at the Association for Specialists in Group Work and has written five books, including Experiential Group Therapy Interventions With DBT. Allan is the co-author, with Michele Saffier, of Ambushed by Betrayal: The Survival Guide for Betrayed Partners on Their Heroes’ Journey to Healthy Intimacy. He can be reached on his website, AllanJKatz.com.

Michele Saffier is a licensed marriage and family therapist and a certified sex addiction therapist and supervisor. As clinical director and founder of Michele Saffier & Associates, she and her clinical team have worked with couples, families, betrayed partners and people recovering from sexually compulsive behavior for 24 years. As co-founder of the Center for Healing Self and Relationships, she facilitates outpatient treatment intensives for individuals, couples and families healing from the impact of betrayal trauma. She can be reached at her website, TraumaHealingPa.com.

 

Counseling Today reviews unsolicited articles written by American Counseling Association members. To access writing guidelines and tips for having an article accepted for publication, visit ct.counseling.org/feedback.

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Mental gymnastics: Navigating challenging relationships

By Grace Hipona May 13, 2022

“I am not sure how they are feeling and what they are thinking. I am confused. I feel like I am going crazy. I question everything, and I don’t know if I can trust what I am feeling and thinking.”

Relationship issues are one of the more difficult problems to help clients manage. When clients make any of the statements above, especially in relation to someone else, I talk with them about what I have coined as “mental gymnastics.” Mental gymnastics can start with unsettling statements and questions but also can lead to impacting other areas of a person’s life. In this article, I discuss how clients can be affected and strategies professional counselors can use to help them navigate these challenges.

Direct communication

When a client is experiencing mental gymnastics, they may commonly ask, “Why is this so hard? Why can’t I make this work? Why is this so exhausting?”

Direct communication, including asking questions, is the best strategy for clients to navigate mental gymnastics. However, if direct questions are asked and the other party does not respond with an honest or genuine answer, then it becomes more complicated. Sometimes, there is a discrepancy between what a person says and how they act. Sometimes, they may not even have this awareness, especially if they are confused themselves.

Unfortunately, it may feel purposeful or malicious when others do not communicate directly, lie through omission or engage in other forms of dishonesty. A classic example is when a person asks, “How are you?” and the other person responds with “I am fine.” However, their body language and tone of voice indicate that they are not actually “fine” but are instead upset or angry. Another common exchange is one person asking, “Do you need anything?” and the other person responding with “no,” even though they need help.

When discrepancies between what clients say and how they act arise, it is natural for clients to question their own inclinations. “Can I trust how I feel or what I think?”

Adding to the internal conflict, the other person can potentially invalidate how the client feels or completely deny their reality. Therefore, as professional counselors, it is important to specifically ask clients their feelings about the relationship in question. This clarity can increase clients’ self-awareness. Clients will find it easier to navigate relationships when they are aware of their reality and have confidence in it.

Good vs. bad anxiety and needs vs. wants

One common example of mental gymnastics that I’ve encountered is when a client has begun getting to know someone (whether a budding friendship or a romantic relationship) and they experience anxiety that is more constant and intense than typically associated with relationship building. This is when clients may begin having unsettling questions and statements: “Why can’t I tell if they like me? I can’t seem to get a straightforward answer. I don’t know what they want.”

When this occurs, I help clients differentiate “good” versus “bad” anxiety. In other words, I provide a space for them to process how they perceive the adrenaline associated with their experiences. A person should experience levels of anxiety when meeting someone new and getting to know them. This could be perceived as “good” anxiety or excitement. Clients may feel butterflies in their stomach, brighter in their affect, and hopeful. With good anxiety, clients may have thoughts and questions such as, “Do they like me?”; “Did I make a good impression?”; and “I can’t wait to see them again.”

If clients experience “bad” anxiety, such as excessive worry, irritability, dread and the triggering of the “fight, flight or freeze” response, this may be a red flag. They may have thoughts such as, “I don’t know what to do”; “I can’t seem to say anything right”; and “What can I say or do so that they will like me more?”

In helping clients assess whether they are experiencing “good” versus “bad” anxiety, I ask them if in general they feel more positive emotions than negative ones. For example, “Do you feel happier more than 50 percent of the time?”

I also help clients determine their needs and wants. I describe needs as things that are non-negotiable to them, such as respect, trust, honesty, marriage, children, and religious or spiritual beliefs. Hard boundaries need to be set around these needs.

Wants are negotiable or flexible. Examples include physical appearance, financial status, educational background and geographic origin. When it comes to positive and healthy relationships, clients should have their needs met, and the relationship should feel like it is a “want” or a choice.

LinaDes/Shutterstock.com

Minimizing and denying

The answers to the assessment questions in the previous section can be interrelated and could lead to more confusion. For example, clients could determine that they feel happy most of the time with their relationship but that most of their needs are not being met. This discrepancy can cause clients to question their feelings, and this could lead to an increase in anxiety.

Another potential cause of internal conflict is receiving information from the other person that minimizes or denies the client’s experience. For example, the client may be questioning their own reality because the other person is directly challenging it: “Oh, you shouldn’t feel that way. Are you sure?”

The other person could be completely denying the client’s reality: “That didn’t happen. I know what you’re feeling. You’re not really mad.”

Some may even define this as “gaslighting” (questioning their internal reality or “sanity” based on external pressure and manipulation).

Another example that can cause internal conflict is when the client brings a concern or stressor to the other person, and that person minimizes the client’s experience. The other person might respond with, “You’re making a big deal out of nothing, and you shouldn’t feel that way.” The other person may shift the focus to themselves while minimizing the client’s experience, “You think you’re upset? I’ve felt so much worse. You don’t know what suffering is really like.”

In any of these scenarios, the attention has turned toward the other person, and the client’s thoughts and feelings have been dismissed. In other words, the client is then reactively directing their energy toward the other person, and the client has lost sight of their inner experience. The client could be more likely to “lose themselves” in the relationship and, therefore, not get their needs and wants met.

Like the sport, mental gymnastics requires a person to use energy and effort. However, unlike the sport, mental gymnastics unnecessarily uses a person’s energy. One indicator that clients are engaging in mental gymnastics is that they feel tired and their mood is generally lower than usual. Clients may describe feeling “drained” even though they are not actively and purposefully using their energy. They may feel the need to use certain strategies or efforts to engage with a particular person. Clients may feel the need to “perform” a certain way; otherwise, they may feel judged, criticized and denied any love, support, care or validation from the other person. Clients may feel dueling inclinations of needing to spend time with the other person but also wanting to avoid that person.

Another reason clients may unnecessarily use energy to engage with another person is that even when trying to support this person, clients feel like they “can’t win.” In other words, the intention and effort may be there, but the other person still feels “it is not good enough.” Even if conditions are met, the other person may find something wrong with what has happened. That person may say, “That was a nice try, but I would have liked this instead.”

Aside from helping my clients gain clarity over their needs versus their wants and insight into their internal experience in general, I believe it is important to help clients reality test. Writing a “pro/con” list or something similar can be useful, especially for clients who tend to be visual in nature. Asking the following questions can support development of this list:

  • How do you benefit from this relationship?
  • How does this person meet your needs and wants?
  • How do you feel about them?
  • How do you feel about the relationship?
  • How is your life impacted by this person?
  • How do they challenge you to be the best version of yourself?
  • What do you like about this person?
  • What do you dislike about this person?
  • What do your friends and family think about this person. 

Active and reactive decision-making

After time, effort and space have been given to the questions mentioned in the previous sections and clients continue to move forward in a relationship where mental gymnastics is present, I encourage clients to think about the consequences of this choice. At this point, clients can take ownership and feel empowered by their decision-making.

When I work with clients, I focus on strategies to help them make ACTIVE decisions rather than reactive ones. Once there is a level of insight into decision-making, they can make informed decisions. This awareness can lead to active decisions where the clients feel they have a choice. Without any awareness, clients may not feel like they have a choice. They may feel compelled to do something but not know why.

An example of a reactive decision is when a client chooses not to end a relationship even though there is evidence that the relationship is unhealthy. A client may say, “I don’t want to break up with him because I love him.”

As the client’s counselor, I would ask, “Why do you love him?”

The client may respond with, “I just do” or “I am not sure, but this is how I feel.”

If clients continue making reactive or passive decisions, this can perpetuate or exacerbate negative anxiety. Counselors can assist in exploring the client’s decision-making process so the client can answer the question “why?”

I believe when clients experience anxiety, it is not just their fear of the unknown and the byproduct of internal conflict, but also a result of them not feeling empowered in their own lives. For clients to feel empowered, they need to be an active participant in their own decision-making process. Counselors can help clients manage this anxiety by helping them focus on their locus of control.

Clients can examine what they say and how they act toward the other person. They can focus on their self-care and on other important aspects of their identity. Clients can also concentrate on purposefully coping with their anxiety in healthy ways. These strategies can lead to feeling confident in navigating potential mental gymnastics.

 

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Grace Hipona is a licensed professional counselor for NeuroPsych Wellness Center PC and holds a doctorate in counselor Education and supervision. Her dissertation focus was on disaster mental health, specifically sheltering-in-place. She is also a certified substance abuse counselor and approved clinical supervisor. Her experiences over the past 15 years include working in private practice, managing behavioral health programs, teaching graduate students, and providing supervision for master’s-level counseling students and counselors-in-residence. Contact her at ghipona@hotmail.com.

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Real talk

By Peter Allen December 13, 2021

I love doing couples work. It is endlessly fascinating, usually challenging and often rewarding. It is a privilege and a sacred responsibility to sit in a room with two people who are both bearing their souls to each other with the shared goal of improving their relationship. When I ask couples what their goals are early on in therapy, more often than not, they tell me they wish to communicate better.

At first glance, this seems like an easy task. Many couples who come to counseling have been experiencing a lot of conflict in the relationship, and their communication might typically include yelling, insults or perhaps passive-aggressive statements and various forms of manipulation. It is very tempting to think that if we can teach them to use “I” statements and a calmer tone of voice and to verbalize feelings and perceptions rather than insults, then loving harmony will follow. It is in fact so tempting to believe this that we may ignore much of what we know about human behavior and biology in the pursuit of facilitating these relational improvements.

It is also alluring to believe that helping people improve their communication is largely a data-driven endeavor. In other words, I have information (data) as a counselor that they don’t have, and if I simply impart this information to them, they will “learn” it, and then their relationships will improve. In reality, improving communication is much more process-oriented, which means that being effective involves observing conditions in real time and constantly responding to those dynamics.

I spent far too much time as a professional counselor simply trying to give people the right words to say, and I suspect that many of my colleagues have had a similar experience. But what I have found time and time again is that many of our clients show up to a session perfectly capable of communicating well (and here’s the catch) when they are calm. In my own practice, I have discovered that emotional regulation skills are absolutely integral to good communication. I can have the prettiest, most assertive words in the world for my partner, but if my lid is flipped and I am dysregulated, it will not matter at all.

It merits mentioning that certain qualities and attributes we may wish to develop as human beings really count only when something important is at stake. For example, let’s consider the quality of patience. It is very easy to be patient when we don’t have to wait or when we feel no stress or pressure to get something done. But patience means having the ability to wait with equanimity regardless of what other factors are present. Patience is the quality of not getting upset when you have to wait for something.

Another example is the quality of loyalty. It is the easiest thing in the world to be loyal when you don’t have to sacrifice anything. True loyalty can be known only when something of value is sacrificed to maintain that loyalty. If you want to know who your loyal friends are, become a social pariah and see who still comes to your birthday party. Spoiler alert: That number will be less than 100% of your total friend group.

Techniques must work in real conditions

We understand patience as waiting calmly, regardless of the other factors. We know loyalty to mean that one stands by their friends or co-workers, even when that standing comes at a personal cost, such as missed opportunities or alienation from others. And so shall we know and recognize good communication skills when they are used in moments of difficulty.

This is important to restate and remember: Anyone can communicate well when they are calm, stable, well-fed, comfortable, etc. However, when those conditions are present, we rarely need to practice good communication skills. 

When I work with couples, it is not usually the case that both parties in the room feel completely calm or at ease during the session, because difficult and very personal subjects are routinely discussed. My clients live in the real world, and their relationships are with real, complicated, conflicted human beings. They have children, they have blended families, they have traumatic experiences and upsetting memories, and all of those elements can be front and center in a session. The most important time we need to communicate well is when we are unhappy or insecure or angry or tired because this is exactly when poor communication can create additional problems.

At first, couples will not remember to use “I” statements when they get triggered because using “I” statements requires the prefrontal cortex to be online and operational. If we teach people the right words but not the methods to access those words, then we are in effect placing positive communication habits in a museum, making them something to be observed and admired but not held and utilized. Weaving together the right words and the emotional regulation techniques that allow those words to be accessed is critical to helping couples actually implement positive communication tools in their daily lives — when it counts.

Practice, practice, practice

We also need to help our clients develop a consistent communication skills practice, regardless of variations in their moods and responsibilities. Think of it this way: If you want to get good at shooting free throws, you practice when you’re happy and when you’re sad and when you’re bored. You practice in the sunshine and in the rain. You shoot so many free throws that muscle memory develops and outside conditions no longer play much of a factor in how you set up and take the shot. You control what you can control, and you let go of what you cannot control. That is what makes a great free throw shooter. Becoming a skilled communicator is no different.

When we help our clients develop a practice of positive communication skills in any situation, they become good at positive communication in any situation. Weird, right? When couples are experiencing wonderful times together, we encourage them to share feelings and impressions. We prompt them to recognize and praise their partner’s efforts and to ask for what they need. Just as with any training, the best practice early on is done in low-pressure situations to build confidence. 

Over time, people develop greater skills and habits, and the increased communication provides ongoing context for each partner to observe and consider. And, often, context is the great equalizer in couples therapy. When we know what our partner is experiencing, we are much more likely to consider it and respond compassionately than when we have no idea. 

The more couples practice this in various mood states and settings, the more likely they will be to access these skills when they really need to, during times of great difficulty. We should also encourage them to share feelings, impressions and needs when they are bored, mildly annoyed or at their wits’ end because, well, that’s life sometimes too.

I share this at some point with almost every couple I work with: If you make your partner guess what you need, they will get it wrong. If you tell them what you need, they have the best chance of giving what you need to you. Help your clients develop the practice and habit of asking for what they need, when they need it. This aspect alone will reduce conflict noticeably because so much conflict is centered on partners attempting to ascertain the needs of the other and getting it wrong. 

Conversely, in the absence of any specific dialogue about the needs of the other, it is easy to forget for short or long periods of time that our partner would need anything at all from us. But when our partner shares and we hear what they need, we can respond to that.

Building positive communication habits

There are many ways we can help people integrate these concepts and habits into their lives. Emotional regulation can be as simple as prompting someone to take a few deep breaths while they contemplate what they want to say or asking them to let the weight of their body acquiesce to gravity and simply relax down toward the earth. 

I usually ask people to identify the emotion they are experiencing and see if they can rate its strength on a scale of 1 to 10. We can ask them if they feel any sensations in their body and any associated emotions or thoughts, bringing about mindfulness of their own state prior to communicating. 

I am inviting them to tune in to their own experience and tell me what they are noticing in terms of any conditions that are present. Because if they are noticing things about how they are thinking and feeling, then we know that the prefrontal cortex is working. And all of this is about slowing down and creating some opportunity for self-reflection prior to dialogue. It’s not something we need to overthink; most people will have a sense of when they are functioning well and can communicate well and when they might not be, if we direct their attention toward these factors.

I love using normal cues in the day to prompt practice. Many people eat three meals a day, so they consistently have three natural stopping points in the day to practice some of the skills discussed above. I will say to a client, “How about during lunch today, you praise your spouse for supporting you?” or “Try asking for what you need at dinner tonight, even if it is something small.” 

We could prompt the use of a specific skill at any natural point in a client’s day. And we can encourage clients to be transparent, even telling their partner that they are deliberately practicing skills and would appreciate their support with those efforts (very cleverly practicing two skills at once). Their partner sees them practicing and investing in better communication, and that can be contagious.

I encourage clients to communicate well when they can or to take some time apart and buy themselves some time when they can’t. I have never heard an emotionally regulated person call their partner a harsh name or deliberately insult them in session. I have heard plenty of dysregulated people do that.

At the macro level, we know American culture places a high value on fixing problems, but at the micro level, many of us are less adept at assessing when we lack the proper tools to fix any given problem. At the risk of using too many metaphors in one article, one should not attempt to climb a mountain on an empty stomach or without water. And couples should not attempt to problem-solve serious relationship issues when they are hungry, hurt, exhausted or otherwise low on personal resources. 

When it comes to having conflict with a partner, a persistent myth exists that it is wise and desirable to “hang in there.” Let me state this unequivocally — it isn’t. It is far wiser to disengage, before additional damage is done, than it is to stay in the conversation when it is clear that neither person is giving any ground or understanding the other. 

If my anger is an 8 on a scale of 1 to 10, that is not the best time for me to speak with you. If I want to perform reasonably well, I should probably get my anger down at least to a 4 or a 5 before I re-engage in a discussion. My task is to recognize that in myself ahead of time. Because I cannot wait until I have no feelings whatsoever to communicate, I am always trying to find that sweet spot when I am regulated enough to communicate well. 

This is more important than any particular arrangement of words that we can teach our clients. Part of helping couples improve their communication skills is helping them pick their moments. Just as climbing a mountain should be attempted from a position of confidence and strength, so should problem-solving and conflict resolution flow from this position in couples work.

The important thing for us to keep in mind is that without emotional regulation and consistent practice, attempting to improve communication will be very difficult. Pretty words will not be enough.

Prostock-studio/Shutterstock.com

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Peter Allen is a licensed professional counselor and writer based in Redmond, Oregon. Contact him at peterallenlpc@gmail.com.

 

Counseling Today reviews unsolicited articles written by American Counseling Association members. To access writing guidelines and tips for having an article accepted for publication, visit ct.counseling.org/feedback.

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.